If there is a single characteristic that sums up what makes a good team leader, it is encapsulated in the little word, trust. High performance teams are high trust units and developing mutual trust, both between individual team members as well as between individuals and the team leader, is a fundamental requirement for any truly successful team.
As human beings, we are not usually that good at listening to feedback about ourselves that we perceive as negative. Skilful managers and team leaders know this, of course, and therefore may use a variety of methods to circumnavigate the basic problem when it comes to appraisal, for example. It is, however, possible for more mature units to arrive at a place where such techniques become largely unnecessary or even completely redundant. But for many teams, it is not an easy journey to arrive at that place.
You are probably familiar with the Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing journey that all teams must undertake to get from starting out to becoming effective. Whilst not exactly a prerequisite, that particular journey will usually already have taken place when the team is ready to move to the next level. There is a huge difference between being an effective team and a peak-performing one. It is possible, though unusual, for teams to naturally evolve into peak-performing units. But what makes all the difference is the trust that individuals have in both their fellow team players and their leader.
High trust units can have difficult conversations. You might think that you can have difficult conversations in your workplace, but you must understand that there are always two conversations going on at any time. There is the surface conversation in which people will be inclined to tow the party line, avoid rocking the boat and tell you what they think you want to hear. Then there is the other one; the one that they will have with their own close inner circle composed of people they completely trust.
You can say all you like as a manager, but unless you create a closely knit circle of people who share that same kind of trust that you have with your own inner circle, you will never be able to have the type of conversations that take place outside of your team meetings. So what? That means you might never really know how people truly feel despite your best efforts to find out. High trust units have those difficult conversations because they can have them and, if your team is to move on from effectiveness to greatness, you need to create the environment in which that type of conversation can flourish.
There are two specific difficult conversations that can take place in high-trust teams. The first conversation concerns feedback on individual performance. As I mentioned above, once you have this level of maturity, a high degree of mutual trust and a shared understanding of what you are trying to accomplish, people will accept your feedback in the spirit that it should have been given i.e. as a means of improving the team. Mature team members will understand that this kind of feedback is nothing personal – it is about improving the team – and the necessity for it does not need to be spelled out to them.
The second difficult conversation that can take place is the one that does rock the boat; the one in which individuals do not feel constrained to have to follow the company line. People will feel that they can express themselves completely free from any possible ramifications or consequences if you have created the environment for the discussion. Both of these conversations can benefit the team and the organisation enormously.
So as a team leader, you job is to build trust. It is easy enough to say, of course, but not necessarily easy to do. However, you must start with yourself. You must become a person of integrity, someone who is trustworthy and who the group perceives that way. That means that you don’t talk about other people – whoever they are – when they are absent, for example. Every time you do this, you signal to your team and all around you that you are not trustworthy.
Second you do not allow other people to talk in your presence about anyone who is absent. You have to find the right way of telling people that this behaviour is not acceptable. You don’t want to come across as controlling or dominating, but you do want people to know that you are prepared to defend anyone in your team who is not present. Again, when you do this, you signal to everyone present something important about your character.
Third, you never keep any information from your team. You tell the people in the team and those to whom you report that this is a part of the way you operate. So if those above you in the organisation don’t want to you pass on information, then they should not involve you. You are a part of your team as much as a leader of it and you don’t want any secrets within that group if you are to build a peak performing unit. Remember that people tell their innermost secrets to those they trust the most. So, when your team get to know that you will always tell them the truth, you again signal trustworthiness.
Fourth, you never allow anyone from outside your team to attack any member of your team, in any way. You must protect and defend your team members at all costs. If your team failed, you all failed. That’s ok. You have the difficult conversation internally. You keep that kind of information about personal failure inside the team and you let everyone know that’s how you operate. Those above you in the organisation may not approve of your methods, but that’s ok. They get the chance to get rid of you if your methods do not work. However, this approach does work and when it does, such people will be less concerned about your methods and much more concerned with your results.
Build trust! First work on yourself. Work on your basic character. Develop a fair, even-handed, open-minded approach to dealing with people. Encourage trust first by example. If you create the right environment, people will begin to open up. You will have different conversations within the team and you will be on the way to the next level.